Cruising the Lake
Taupo is New Zealand’s biggest lake, with three excellent options for heading out on the water: the replica steamboat Ernest Kemp, the motor launch Cruise Cat, and the old yacht Barbary. The first two follow a similar path and pass the Maori rock carvings, which are accessible only by boat. Ernest Kemp Cruises (tel. 07/378-9222; firstname.lastname@example.org) operates 2-hour cruises daily for NZ$42 adults, NZ$12 children ages 5 to 15. It is essential to book through the visitor center or the Taupo Boat Harbour office. Cruises run three times daily at 10:30am, 2pm, and 5pm. The Cruise Cat Experience (tel. 07/378-0623; www.chrisjolly.co.nz) covers a longer distance than the Ernest Kemp in a shorter time. The tour operates daily from 11:30am to 1pm and costs NZ$40 for adults, NZ$16 for school-age children. The Barbary Carvings Cruise (tel. 07/378-3444; www.sailbarbary.com) departs at 10:30am, 2pm, and 5pm, and costs NZ$45 for adults, NZ$12 for children ages 5 to 15.
Bike tours and rentals can be arranged through Rapid Sensations, 413 Huka Falls Rd. (tel. 0800/353-435 in NZ, or 07/374-8117; www.rapids.co.nz). Its tours go to the Craters of the Moon thermal area, a 2 1/2-hour ride that costs NZ$75 per person. Rentals are NZ$55 per day. In Taupo, you can also rent bikes from Cycle World, 30 Spa Rd. (tel. 07/378-6117). For more information, including tours, suppliers, and recommended cycle tracks, pick up the excellent brochure Cycling Around Lake Taupo.
You don’t even have to jump to be impressed by the scenery that surrounds the 47m (154-ft.) bungy platform cantilevered out over the Waikato River. Call Taupo Bungy, 202 Spa Rd. (tel. 0800/888-408 in NZ, or 07/377-1135; www.taupobungy.com). You’ll pay from NZ$149 for a solo jump or NZ$298 to go tandem. The company offers free pickup from accommodations for jumpers and they have free Internet onsite. The bungy operates 9am until 7pm in summer (closed Dec 25). They also have the Taupo Cliffhanger swing onsite (www.taupocliffhanger.com), which costs NZ$99 for a solo swing and NZ$180 to go tandem. You can get a break on the price if you do both activities.
Try something a bit different at Rock ‘n’ Ropes, Karetoto Rd., Wairakei Park, Wairakei (tel. 0800/244-508 in NZ, or 07/374-8111; www.rocknropes.co.nz). If you’ve ever dreamed of being part of a circus act, this is your chance to polish up on rope walking, trapezing, rock climbing, and assorted other airborne fun. Courtesy transport to the site is available. Adventures here are reasonably priced from NZ$20 to NZ$65. It’s open daily 10am until 5pm.
More than 100 years have passed since the first trout fry were released into the Lake Taupo region. Today, their plump descendants are one of the main draws. It’s the best of New Zealand’s trout fishing. You’ll need a special Taupo-issued fishing license, which can be good for a day to a full season. Remember that the minimum legal size is 45 centimeters (18 in.) and the daily limit is three fish. The best river fishing is during the winter spawning runs (June–Sept) but lake fishing is good all year. The visitor center can give you a list of the dozens of fishing guides in the area. Two I recommend are Chris Jolly Outdoors (tel. 07/378-0623; www.chrisjolly.co.nz), which is great for large groups; and Go Fish Taupo (tel. 07/378-9395; www.gofishtaupo.co.nz), which offers guides for beginners and experienced fishermen alike for NZ$300 a half-day and NZ$550 for a full day.
Scenic rides in Taupo’s Floatplane (tel. 07/378-7500; www.tauposfloatplane.co.nz) leave from the lakefront near Taupo Boat Harbour; they range from a 10-minute flight to a 2-hour White Island excursion for NZ$675. Ask about the 10-minute backpacker special for four people, at NZ$100 per person. Mountain Air (tel. 0800/922-812 in NZ, or 07/892-2812; www.mountainair.co.nz) offers breathtaking flights over the Volcanic Plateau. Helicopter fans will love a spin with Clark & Jolly Helicopters , Taupo Airport (tel. 0800/424-677 in NZ, or 07/377-8805; www.helinz.com), which can put a package together to suit your whims and budget, starting at a quick 10-minute buzz over Taupo from NZ$100 per adult.
Quad bikes are all the rage, and Taupo Quad Adventures, 24km (15 miles) north of Taupo on State Highway 1 (tel. 07/377-6404; www.taupoquads.co.nz), offers rides through native bush, farms, and forest trails that cost from NZ$95 to NZ$300.
Wairakei International Golf Course, State Highway 1 (tel. 07/374-8152; www.wairakeigolfcourse.co.nz), is rated among the top 20 golf courses in the world outside the United States. Book well ahead; greens fees are NZ$150 for affiliated and NZ$200 for nonaffiliated members. The Taupo Golf Club, 32 Centennial Dr. (tel. 07/378-6933; www.taupogolf.co.nz), is one of only two New Zealand clubs to have two 18-hole courses. You have the choice of the Centennial Championship Course or the Tauraha Course. Greens fees are NZ$40 for affiliated and NZ$60 for nonaffiliated members.
Lakeside Hole-in-One -- If it feels like your lucky day, or perhaps you’ve given up on Lotto, try Taupo’s crazy “Great Lake Hole-in-One” Challenge (tel. 07/378-8117). It’s addictive, fun, and, to my mind, impossible. The truth is, it’s not. Apparently, more than 200 people have managed to make it, winning fabulous prizes, including trips to Europe, bungy jumps, and dinners. The object is to stand on the shoreline and whack a golf ball 115m (378 ft.) over the water in the hope that it will fall directly into the tiny hole in the middle of a floating pontoon. Balls cost NZ$1 each, NZ$15 for 18, and NZ$20 for 25. A red hole-in-one wins NZ$5,000; an ace-in-one of the 12-inch-wide blue-and-white holes will earn you local lodgings, attractions, products, adventure packages, or dinners. And can you believe it -- There’s about one winner per week! You can take a shot daily from 9am to 9pm, depending on weather conditions, with reduced hours in winter.
Two operators work two completely different areas of the Waikato River. Hukafalls Jet, Wairakei Tourist Park (tel. 0800/485-253 in NZ, or 07/374-8572; www.hukafallsjet.co.nz), specializes in impressive 360-degree spins and close-ups of Huka Falls. It charges NZ$105 for adults, NZ$59 for children 15 and under for a 30-minute adventure. Rapids Jet, Rapids Road, Aratiatia (tel. 0800/727-437 in NZ, or 07/378-5828; www.rapidsjet.com), runs farther upstream in the fast waters of the Aratiatia Rapids; prices are NZ$95 adults, NZ$55 children 5 to 15. Riders must be 5 and older, and taller than 1m (3 ft., 4 in.).
Paddle over the turquoise-blue waters of the Waikato River with Canoe & Kayak (tel. 0800/529-256 in NZ; www.canoeandkayak.co.nz). A 2-hour guided trip includes a soak in hot springs and costs NZ$75. For lake kayaking, call Kayaking Kiwi (tel. 0800/353-435 in NZ, or 07/374-8117; www.kayakingkiwi.co.nz); it offers rock drawing and volcanic kayaking trips (around 4–5 hr.) priced from NZ$99.
The completely revamped and extended AC Baths, top end of Spa Road (tel. 07/376-0350; www.taupovenues.co.nz), opened in 2003, and it features indoor and outdoor pools, nine private pools, two hydroslides, a Jacuzzi, a sauna, and a cafe make it well worth a visit in summer, when Taupo gets fiercely hot. A rock climbing wall is a fun addition for all ages.
The visitor center’s excellent Taupo Walkways brochure outlines the area’s 10 most popular tracks. They range from 15 minutes to 1 1/2 hours in length. One option is the 3km (2-mile) walk from Spa Park, in Taupo, along the riverbank to Huka Falls (2 hr. round-trip). You can carry on to Aratiatia Rapids, which takes another 2 hours.
If you're walking the very pleasant Huka Falls Track, test out the hot stream that runs into the Waikato River at the Spa Park end of the track,but as in all geothermal pools, don't put your head under! Just after the start of the track, you'll cross a bridge over the stream. Access to the pool is below that. It's popular with Magic Traveller and Kiwi Experience types, so don't expect to always be alone.
The guides with Kiwi River Safaris (tel. 0800/723-8577 in NZ, or 07/377-6597; www.krs.co.nz) know their stuff. They’ve had a minimum of 5 years’ full-time experience and are qualified swift-water rescue technicians, with first aid and CPR certification updated annually. Options include daily Grade III to IV trips on Rangitaiki River and float trips on the Waikato River. The Grade IV to V trips on Wairoa River are for serious thrill seekers and happen only 26 days a year, when the hydro waters are released. Prices start at NZ$120 per person.
For lovely forest walks and mountain-bike tracks, head for Craters of the Moon Park, on Poihipi Road. Head north from Taupo, cross the bridge, and at the top of the long hill turn onto the road to Kinloch (Poihipi Rd.). The park is about 5km (3 miles) farther on. Make sure you lock your car in this area.